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The Left Archive: Peoples Democracy, ideology and just what is Trotskyism? August 27, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Leninism, Marxism, People's Democracy, Trotskyism.


This – no, not the image above which is a publication from 1970 – this here cover-2.pdf is fresh from the archives, an interesting document entitled “What is Trotskyism” issued by People’s Democracy in or about 1980. The pamphlet contains a speech by veteran Trotskyist Ernest Mandel (a fascinating person in his own right who seems to have been able to overcome much of the usual tendency on the left to cowerg behind the lines and instead been willing to discuss and argue with political opponents) during a debate with Monty Johnstone of the CPGB from 1969. And it’s a pretty good explication of what Mandel considered was currently existing Trotskyism during that period.

It’s sort of fun. Within the pages there are three images, one of Trotsky, one of Lenin and then a third of a Peoples Democracy March from the late 1960s, perhaps even the PD march at Burntollet. Simply produced by PD on a typewriter. We have ads for their bookshops in Andersonstown and Killester (that well known hotbed of revolutionary activity).

The debate itself is quite interesting. It was clearly at a point when Trotskyism was resurgent, buoyed by the rise of the New Left and student movements. Indeed the spirit of ’68 permeates the pages, particularly when Mandel raises some quite frankly excellent questions regarding the role of the pro-Moscow PCF during May 1968 (although one might suggest that it’s always easier to be complaining about the exercise or non-exercise of power when one has effectively none). And in a fascinating foreshadowing of later and more contemporary debates Mandel argues that the invasion of Czechoslovakia ‘…not only violated the sovereignty and independence of a small nation…but was equally criminal in other respects’. This concentration on sovereignty is quite telling (although to me a bit contradictory for internationalists)… anyhow. Read the rest yourselves!

The ideological basis for this tilt to Trotskyism by PD (which also flirted with Maoism) developed during the 1970s, although it is in a sense hardly surprising that such a political child of 1968 would find other more traditional left formations difficult to align with (indeed there has to be a thesis subject there on the way in which the appropriation by SFWP effectively closed down the option for our homegrown radicals to follow the Moscow – or even really the Havana route). By 1976 they were recognised as the Irish section of the Fourth International.

In a way the longevity of PD is remarkable. From the early days as part of the campaign for civil rights the movement transcended its roots as what appeared to be a fundamentally student based organisation. In the early 1980s they held two seats on Belfast City Council. But as PSF moved towards a more overtly political stance it provided both competitor and new home for some PD activists. Eventually, as late as 1996, it was dissolved and replaced by Socialist Democracy.

Any of you who know the story from the inside I’d be most interested to hear more. It sounds like a remarkable organisation.

Incidentally I can’t resist decoding the cover of the Northern Star from 1970 above. Its got it all, doesn’t it, from Larkin, to a youthful rioter and then a stencilled Starry Plough. Oh yes, and two initials which at that time wouldn’t quite resonate with quite the same chilling effect as more recently!

[Image above from CAIN]


1. Idris of Dungiven - August 27, 2007

Does Socialist Democracy have any membership beyond the four lads who were constantly in and out of Vincents’ cafe on Botanic Avenue?


2. splinteredsunrise - August 27, 2007

I know the guys you mean! Yes, there are others, but they aren’t the most high-profile of groups. A fascinating bunch to be sure, and not nearly as dour as you’d guess from their website.

The development of PD ideology is fascinating in itself – I have a copy of Rayner Lysaght’s Early History of Irish Trotskyism which I keep meaning to transcribe. That takes in a wealth of material from the wartime RSP to the first Irish Workers Group in the 60s and then the emergence of PD and its eventual fusion with the MSR. The document is undated, but I think was written in about 1981 or thereabouts.


3. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2007

It would be great if you could transcribe it splinteredsunrise. It would be nice to have a little archive of Irish Left – and indeed Republican – publications and pamphlets available in PDF form. I hate it when people call it ephemera, because for better or worse people slaved over this stuff. I know CAIN has some stuff, but it’s a bit limited and often restricted to the covers.

Incidentally I have “Patterns of Betrayal” by the WP following the DL split. But I’m a bit leery to scan it into PDF format since I see that for a not too princely sum it is still available in the WP bookshop in Belfast. What do you think? Scan and incur the wrath of the WP or not?

Incidentally does anyone have any material from the IRSP from around its foundation?


4. chekov - August 27, 2007

Socialist Democracy have at least 2 members in Dublin but as far as I’m aware, they have attracted no new members in the last decade. They are moribund but too stubborn to quit.

Their political output can be classified as “leadership in exile” type stuff that is fairly typical of the smaller trotskyist outfits – they concentrate on critiquing the decisions of the leaderships of various struggles, often in fairly unrealistic terms based on a lack of intimate knowledge of the problems and lots of wishful thinking. For this reason, every time I’ve come across one of their interventions in person, my “bonkers alarm” has started ringing loudly. For example, a couple of them showed up at some of the bin tax meetings, demanding the the campaign occupy liberty hall – an idea that was stunning in it’s basic stupidity and lack of connection with reality.


5. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2007

That doesn’t sound great, Chekov. Clearly they’ve fallen on hard times… ideologically speaking.


6. frank little - August 27, 2007

“..an idea that was stunning in it’s basic stupidity and lack of connection with reality.”

And you so rarely see that in Trotskyist sects.


7. John Mc Anulty - August 28, 2007

Strangely enough I haven’t read Raynor’s pamphlet. I would be interested in reprinting it if Splinter would slip it my way. The point he was trying to make, however, is credible – that there is an historical continuity linking PD and SD to early revolutionary Marxism in Ireland. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance, which went on to become the core of PD, in 1966. The leadership had mostly come from an émigré branch of the Irish Workers Group and I heard the claim that some of their mentors claimed membership of the Irish Citizen Army.

My own memory is that at the time we were almost alone in trying to apply revolutionary Marxist categories to the civil rights struggle (there was really little in the way of a Marxist movement outside the CP and it and its supporters were applying a stages theory and trying hard to get the movement off the streets).

In part our early development depended on a tiny, politically weak, socialist core becoming the leadership of a typical ’68 direct action movement. That movement had no chance of survival and had to undergo a rapid political evolution. From that point of view it is mistaken to see us as flirting with any strand of Marxism. The early movement included people who would go on to become prominent in the Unionist movements, the SDLP, the Sticks, the Provos and the IRSP. Seen as a process of evolution, with individuals going in all directions, our arrival in the Fourth International is hardly surprising.

There are a number of quite major theoretical positions developed by Peoples Democracy. These are essential for understanding our history and also the justification for being interested in it in the first place. Some ideas were mistaken, but I believe others are still correct. I’ll come back with more detail later.

As for Chekov. You contribution really amounts to slander, one that has been made and answered before. Our view of the Bin Tax campaign can be found at: http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/OnlinePublications.htm#Bintifada. If you want to open a discussion of this you can contact the webmaster at webmaster@socialistdemocracy.org. As it is, your reduction of 40 years of the history of our organisation to a mistaken recollection of what you think some of our members said at a bin tax meeting is stunning in its lack of perspective.


8. yourcousin - August 28, 2007

I’m starting to think you have a fetish for leftist sects WBS (same goes for you SS).


9. WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2007

Hmmm… you might be right yourcousin. 😉

Although in their day PD were much much more than a sect. There’s not a few who would paint them in extremely negative colours for certain of their actions… and not just those who hold more conservative positions (a lot of people in the WP loathed them, but I’ve heard SFers no less dismissive).

John, that’s really interesting, more would be great…

Chekov and franklittle are in fairness only giving their impressions. I think it’s good that all voices put forward their positions.


10. chekov - August 28, 2007

“If you want to open a discussion of this you can contact the webmaster at webmaster@socialistdemocracy.org.”

Alternatively, I could discuss it wherever the hell I like.

“As it is, your reduction of 40 years of the history of our organisation to a mistaken recollection of what you think some of our members said at a bin tax meeting is stunning in its lack of perspective.”

It’s not mistaken at all, there are loads of witnesses who can back me up – it was an intervention that was much commented upon at the time. I also did not reduce 40 years of anything to that recollection, I simply used it as an example of where I feel your organisation is at now. I could also have used the entire contents of your bin tax pamphlet to make a similar point, but the liberty hall anecdote is more succinct. If you like I can go into great detail about what I call the “leadership in exile” syndrome which I believe that SD exhibit strongly, in common with most trotskyist outfits.


11. Mark P - August 28, 2007

Actually Chekov, while I wasn’t at the meeting you are talking about, my recollection of the Socialist Democracy “line” on the bin tax is very slightly different to yours. If anything you are giving them too much credit for radicalism.

Their position wasn’t, at least when I encountered it, that the campaign should occupy Liberty Hall. It was that the campaign should call its direct action to a halt and picket Liberty Hall. This was if anything an even crazier line of argument. Not only should the campaign drop the only weapon available to it, not only should the campaign drop the struggle against the councils and government and start one against the trade union bureaucrats, it should prosecute the struggle against the trade union bureaucracy in an entirely ineffectual way.

All this from a group which had essentially no involvement in the painstaking building of non-payment, no involvement in the fight against non-payment, and evidently no understanding whatsoever of the realities on the ground. To be fair to them, they are at least consistent – they wanted the anti-war movement to concentrate on picketing Liberty Hall too. It’s a a single transferable demand, which they evidently feel can be proposed in the stead of any real struggle on any issue.


12. chekov - August 28, 2007

“Actually Chekov, while I wasn’t at the meeting you are talking about, my recollection of the Socialist Democracy “line” on the bin tax is very slightly different to yours. If anything you are giving them too much credit for radicalism.”

That’s true, but at the meeting in question, I believe the SD member got slightly carried away and proposed an escalating series of actions against liberty hall, starting with a picket and escalating (in tenor of voice as well as seriousness of action) to an occupation.

To your objections, I’d also add the fact that a bunch of people, most of whom were not members of SIPTU occupying SIPTU headquarters and demanding that the leadership force their membership to take industrial action which could well put their jobs at risk is not exactly a productive way to persuade people of your case. In general, I’m against strategies which demand other people to take action to further your agenda, whether they agree with your or not.


13. Mark P - August 28, 2007

On your last point, I broadly agree.

It was a more spectacularly foolish version of the SWP’s endless obsession with “meeting and greeting” the bin men as they did their rounds rather than blockading bin trucks. They simply refused to see there was a much stronger possibility of the bin workers themselves taking action in the context of existing action by members of the local community. Asking them to do it for us – as opposed to with us – was never going to work. And indeed, the closest the struggle came to serious industrial action was at the height of the direct action by community activists.

But to be fair to the SWP, at least their mistaken approach was towards the right people, the bin workers on the ground. Socialist Democracy couldn’t seriously have thought that abandonging the direct action in favour of a campaign picket at Liberty Hall would convince the bureaucrats to not only develop a backbone but to actually, as you say, force their members out on strike action. It wasn’t a strategy to win the struggle at all. It was a strategy for placing the blame for a major defeat on the union bureaucrats (and not even a particularly good strategy for doing so).

It was also the kind of thing which only a group which had taken no part at all in struggle could come up with.


14. Brad from Detroit - August 29, 2007

As a Marxist with a perverse interest in Irish politics–and stuck way out here in the American Midwest–I find Socialist Democracy’s writings extremely helpful. I’m glad they stuck around for so long if only to critique the fall of PSF and the peace process… there is not another group that gets the Adamsites so right. Their on-going (and going and going) analysis of the complete collapse of Provisional republicanism is right on the money. Needless to say, I don’t see their work on the ground. But I read their articles religiously and I don’t see another Marxist outfit saying what they say.
Lots of Trotskyist groups are small, but how many change the way you look at the six counties? For me, just SD.
Bless their grumpy little heads.
It’s sorta funny because back in the day they used to get called Provo cheerleaders, the most uncritical of the Trotskyist bunch. And today no one picks apart the gross reformism of Grizzly & Co. better. But retrospectively, so many Trotskyists shied away from saying anything supportive of the armed struggle or the ‘RA in general that I guess it’s better to have been a falsely labeled cheerleader than an accurately labeled national-question-evader. Really, it’s groups like Militant or the Swimmers who have some explaining to do.
I guess SD knew when to cheer and knew when to jeer?
Something like that. Anyway, they still have my respect from afar.


15. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2007

Thanks for reading.

Just thinking though that while you (and SD) might be right that on some axis there has been a ‘fall of PSF and the peace process’, here on the ground, or there on the ground if one wants to be absolutely literal, there’s little sign of either on most other axes. If anything both appear embedded – PSF in terms of it’s political hegemony (which seems to me to be more pervasive than SDLPs ever was), the peace process in terms of being ‘the only show in town’. SD can rail against both, but pretty significant societal shifts have taken place and I’m not certain that jeering by SD against self-evident mistakes of PSF in the very recent past, such as their cack-handed election in the South, is really very constructive.

On the other hand, no one and no thing is above criticism and voices off do contribute perhaps to keep PSF from making similar mistakes again. It’s just that the framework SD posits “complete collapse”, “gross reformism” (incidentally since when was PSF ever a clearly Marxist organisation? Not in my lifetime, Left-Republican, well sure, but then reformism is built into left Republicanism ) seems to have detached itself from reality.


16. splinteredsunrise - August 29, 2007

Bless their grumpy little heads.

LOL. Another thing is that written polemics are very much out of fashion on the Dublin left. I mean, we all know how sectarian the SWP can be, but their paper is really nicey-nicey these days, even down to heaping praise on Joe and Clare. The sectarianism we know about doesn’t make it through into the paper, or even public pronouncements these days. It seems the only people in Dublin who do polemics any more are the Pabloite revisionists of the Spartacist League, but they have the excuses of being both American and insane.

The Belfast left is very different of course. Political traditions are a lot tougher. Plus the CPI, Workers Party and IRSP are all relatively strong here, quite possibly more so than the SP, and SD have a fairly lively group that actually does some activity. The strange thing is that in the flesh they are one of the more open and less sectarian groups, but their image is the exact opposite. Maybe it’s that writing style.


17. Mickhall - August 29, 2007

The early movement included people who would go on to become prominent in the Unionist movements, the SDLP, the Sticks, the Provos and the IRSP.

Is this not the history of Trotskyism, what is it about Trotskyism that make its adherents incapable of existing in a single party of Trotskyist, let alone a broad party of the Left. The reason why comrades leave burnt out is pretty obvious to all former Trots, endless rounds of pointless meetings, at which the leading members pontificate much as the bourgeois party politicians do, demos that achieve little, [I remember one Group that put a 3 line whip on its members picketing a cinema that was showing a film about Trotsky] daily paper sales [in this day and age?] and other pretty thankless tasks that only put the activists on the periphery of working class people.

If ever the saying that your main political enemies are within your own party it is true it is of the Trots.

By the way in case any comrade missed it Monty Johnson died the other week.



18. John Mc Anulty - August 29, 2007

Chekov argues that he can discuss anything anywhere. That’s not the case. He can harangue and rant, but to discuss he needs a respondent.

It is impossible for me to respond in this forum. First of all, I simply don’t accept that he has made a political point. Any contribution that takes the form “Youse said X at meeting Y” is the sort of minutiae of sectarianism that only the dedicated can take an interest in, a point underlined by your support from the irritable troll Mark of the Socialist party.

Secondly, the thread opened with a discussion of revolutionary history and that’s what I will deal with. I simply refuse to allow you to hijack it and have your two pence about some meeting to overshadow four decades of an organisation I am proud to be associated with.

Again, we have a published position on the Bin charge campaign. If you want to have a crack at it we will publish on our site.


19. John Mc Anulty - August 29, 2007


The main conception that PD advanced was the irreformability of the Northern statelet. The statelet was founded and maintained on sectarian discrimination. A settlement that took away that discrimination would simultaneously take away the reason for the state’s existence. It is probably this view that isolates us most on the left today. Most people not only believe that reform of the North is possible, they also believe that that reform has occurred, ignoring the replication of sectarian structures at all levels of Northern society.

Another characteristic of our organisation was the rejection of Loyalist organisations as political representatives of Protestant workers, in part because PD, throughout its history, managed to obtain a sizable proportion of its members from the tiny radical tradition coming from a Protestant background. At one stage this led to a lurch into ultraleftism, with a theory of Loyalist fascism, but we still managed to get closer to the truth than the constant tendency of Irish socialism and republicanism to credit loyalist thugs with working class credentials.

We applied the theory of permanent revolution to Ireland. Possibly our biggest mistake was to see this as some sort of automatic historical process and imagine that a revolutionary dynamic would push republicanism to the left.

We produced what I consider to be a workable understanding of Leninism that allowed, and continues to allow, a high level of internal democracy and a relatively high level of political understanding.

PD and SD constantly look to a democratic United Front method in campaigns and clear unity around political demands. Again something that has fallen out of fashion.

We have chronicled the role of the Union bureaucracy in advancing social partnership and detailed the consequences for working class organisation.

I’ll close by mentioning the fact that leading anarchist figures also began in the early PD – apologies to the shade of my old friend, John McGuffin, someone almost impossible to forget!

That’s all folks!

You can wait for the book or ask specific questions.


20. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2007

Cool and very interesting, what book though?


21. John Mc Anulty - August 29, 2007

The book is my retirement project

Mickhall – you are confusing different processes. It is difficult to transmit the extent to which the old Stormont regime operated as a police state. When it cracked all sorts of different tendencies started in the one organisation. I suspect a similar process occured in the Gdansk shipyard.

In any case, small-group cultism is not linked to any political perspective – I thought a strong case was made for the CPI(ML) filling that niche.


22. WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2007

Actually John I have a question. What was the attrition rate in the 1980s to PSF and did it happen in waves or was it a single shift across? Did PD members go in any number to other left formations, I guess I mean were there internal factions and how did this manifest itself if at all.


23. John Mc Anulty - August 31, 2007

There was a big debate about the outcome of the hunger strike. I was in a minority arguing that it was a fairly comprehensive defeat. Shortly after a section of the leadership argued for entry to SF – which turned out to just mean joining. The majority of the organisation rejected that but went into gradual decline until we decided to revisit the whole question of the working class and the national question, re-write our programme and change our name. Things have been a little bit more healthy since then. We have had a small fusion with a group that came out of the SWP and a much bigger periphery and some common action with other left groups.


24. James R - August 31, 2007

World By Storm was asking if other people had any material from the archives of left groups, well recently the WSM uploaded some anarchist publications lost to the passages of time in PDF format. And just so it doesn’t seem like I’m totally hijacking the thread its worth mentioning that the Anarchy Ireland carries a history of PD up until the early ’70s. Its online in text form here: http://www.wsm.ie/story/2346

The Contaminated Crow – Feb 1980
Resistance – June/July 1983
Anarchist Worker – May/June 1979
Anarchy No 6 – 1970?
Outta Control – issue 13 March 1981


25. WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2007

Thanks James. That’s not hijacking, that’s helpful!


26. Mbari - August 31, 2007

A little while back, somebody was selling a number of 1970s era Starry Ploughs on ebay.

Also I found some covers online. Probably from the fella who won them on ebay.


27. WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2007

Brilliant mbari. Now if we could get the inside pages 😉


28. Redking - September 1, 2007

Hi WBS-I have scanned that CPI-ML pamphlet (Unity and Freedom to the Irish People!) as a word doc-68 pages-!
You can have it if you give me your email address. I’ve also got assorted WP and some IRSP stuff mainly papers-United Irishman, Northern People, Starry Plough, and a horde of WP pamphlets from the 80s/90s languishing in the garage, but I guess you’ve probably got most of all that.
I’ll have a dig around and see what else I can find…


29. WorldbyStorm - September 1, 2007

In order to evade any clever email trawling programmes it’s my user name ….@eircom.net, thanks a million Redking, that’s really appreciated, I’ve been that soldier in scanning stuff so you have my sympathies and thanks…


30. Brad from Detroit - September 2, 2007

Hey Redking-
I’d gladly pay for shipping for any and all materials you mentioned. Sounds like a fabulous collection. My email is “palestine lives” at hotmail dot com. I could in turn send you any US far left materials you were interested in. I’ve got a full spread from the 60’s to today.
Thanks, comrade!



31. P Moynihan - November 17, 2008

Whatever happened to ‘Spartacist Ireland’ – the last copy I have is #8?

I’ve just been reading Workers Hammer No. 203.

I used to see this for sale outside the GPO in the early 90’s, usually sold by American accented mormon lookalikes. Anyway in 1978 this was their position on Ireland –

(12) Ireland — A correct approach to the complex national question in Ireland must begin with the recognition of the simple fact that there is no single “Irish nation”. The Loyalist Protestant majority in the Six Counties, although not at this point in history itself a nation, is a people separate from the Catholics with whom they share the region. The oppressed minority Catholic grouping is an extension of the Catholic Irish nation which has achieved a deformed and partial self-determination in the Republic of the South. Consequently the slogan of “self-determination for the Irish people as a whole” is either meaningless or is a backhanded way of siding with the nationalism of the Catholics against the Protestants as a people. Instead of cutting across the division between the two communities to allow the development of class struggle the slogan merely exacerbates the division by counterposing the Northern Catholics to the Protestants (who will resist forced unification arms in hand).


32. Mark P - November 17, 2008

Spartacist Ireland is no longer produced. The Irish Sparts lost a few members (from their peak of less than ten) and I think that publishing it ceased to be viable. So now they are back to their previous position of relying on their US and British groups to provide their publications.


33. P Moynihan - November 17, 2008

OK – what happened to the members they lost, have they gone with the IBT and are IBT publications available anywhere?


34. WorldbyStorm - November 17, 2008

P. Moynihan, any chance of a scan of SI? Or even send it through to me and I’ll scan it in for you and send it back?

Mark P, 10 was enough to publish it viably? Bloody hell, what kind of subscriptions did those people pay to the party?


35. Pat Moynihan - November 17, 2008

The complete text of the thing is on the Spartacist website – I have #8 hardcopy if you really, really want it in that format.

It cost 4 euros for a years sub. – i.e four issues and also came with a free copy of ‘Spartacist’ their US theory magazine that runs for about 70 pages and comes out once a year.

There are only about 100 Sparts on the whole planet – but boy can they publish!
Hopefully the Irish section of the IBT will start publishing – cant wait!


36. PJ Callan - January 22, 2009

The Spartacist thesis on Ireland from 1977 –



37. ¡ máirtín ! - January 26, 2009

Hi John (McNulty) Haven’t heard from you since the NEA convention in Minnesota (How many people were in that VW?). Get in touch – I would love to hear from you or any other former PDers. Aren’t we celebrating the anniversary of both Burntollet Marches this year?


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[…] there is People’s Democracy material in the Archive this document, donated by Mark P and the Socialist Party – for which […]


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[…] document, published as an An Reabhloid pamphlet, by Peoples Democracy concentrates on the issues facing the Women’s Movement in the latter part of the 1980s [and many […]


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